Dignified housing at an affordable price
February 5, 2016 10:44 AM   Subscribe

"For over a decade, architecture students at Rural Studio, Auburn University's design-build program in a tiny town in West Alabama, have worked on a nearly impossible problem. How do you design a home that someone living below the poverty line can afford, but that anyone would want—while also providing a living wage for the local construction team that builds it?" Now Rural Studio has a prototype it's trying to bring to market, and it's hitting its biggest challenge yet: how to fit its small, efficient, inexpensive houses into an infrastructure that has no place for them.
posted by sciatrix (69 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm all for this idea, but those Serenbe cottages cost significantly more than 14-20K to build. From this article, the actual cost of construction for both houses and the deck was around 135K, so figure maybe 60K to build each house. And it's unclear if that figure also includes land, but from the use of "to build" in the quote below, I'm assuming it doesn't. So there's still a long way to go.

And $20,000 is still an aspiration. These two cottages and the deck between them cost $135,000 to build. Smith is hoping that if a contractor understands process, he can bring it in more cheaply.
posted by un petit cadeau at 10:58 AM on February 5, 2016 [6 favorites]


Yeah, they're pretty clear that the $14K number is solely for materials and that they're still working on a whole bunch of different problems with the scaling as they go. I figured it was still an interesting project, though.

Because these houses are being designed with the community of rural Alabama in mind, I don't think the land costs should ordinarily be too severe. But then, I've never tried to buy property there myself.
posted by sciatrix at 11:04 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


The homes, for example, are built on piers, a method that requires fewer materials and provides airflow that contributes to passive heating and cooling. Overhanging roofs shield the house from the sun. Inside, transoms over the bathroom and bedroom doors aid in cross ventilation.

Vernacular architecture!
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:05 AM on February 5, 2016 [9 favorites]


Alternative idea: Quinta Monroy in Tarapacá, Chile, where they built "half the house" with the space/ability to double the living space for a low cost. Ugly but utilitarian, giving people the option build their spaces to their wishes and requirements.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


I would not have thought the cost of the mortgage would be a factor--the bank not seeing much profit on a 20k loan--but that does make sense. (I squee so much at tiny little houses. I like that these appear to have an actual bedroom rather than the "shove a futon mattress three inches from the ceiling" that a lot of tiny houses seem to do.)
posted by mittens at 11:13 AM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]


Seems like a one-bedroom house is really limiting, too. What's the financial research behind this? Would a $25,000 two-bedroom make a lot more sense than a $20,000 one-bedroom? Whether splitting costs as roommates, or allowing for families, it seems like demand might be a lot higher for the former.
posted by rikschell at 11:15 AM on February 5, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm all for affordable housing and all, but one thing these designers always overlook is wheelchair accessibility. To maximize available space, you have to build upward, not outward, meaning stairs everywhere. Even if the stairs in the pictures had been replaced with wheelchair ramps, you still have the problem of not enough space to turn a wheelchair around, or get it alongside the bed, or into the bathroom and next to the toilet.
posted by Soliloquy at 11:19 AM on February 5, 2016 [8 favorites]


There seems to be this endorsement of "tiny" stand alone homes as an alternative to group housing, apartments, and "conventional" pre-fab homes without an explanation as to why it's a better idea and independent of widespread market demand, like some type of viral marketing. Does anyone know where more information can be found about the phenomenon *behind* the phenomenon?
posted by Selena777 at 11:23 AM on February 5, 2016 [15 favorites]


I feel like these kind of design solutions are nothing but a distraction. As with global hunger I argue that housing "problems" in this country are the result not of supply but of distribution. Pictures of nicely designed miniature houses on nice rural pieces of property seem Martian by contrast to urban slum or decaying inner ring suburbs. Beyond that is the basic issue of the cost of land and the problems of sprawl. These kind of things always seem to be taking the Robinson Crusoe approach. In short the design client always seems to be the designer themselves.
posted by Pembquist at 11:26 AM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]


Yes, it seems odd to read this piece alongside the BBC article yesterday on mobile homes. What are the advantages of these kinds of houses over mobile homes, which are very similar in scope and function and substantially cheaper?
posted by crazy with stars at 11:28 AM on February 5, 2016 [11 favorites]


Rural Studio previously on Ye Olde MeFi. (Pretty much all the links have rotted away.)

Samuel Mockbee
Feb 1, 2002
posted by zamboni at 11:30 AM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've visited quite a few of these homes and worked, in the most tertiary of senses, with them a bit.

I think it's a very interesting project and they do a really great job with each structure or home.

I don't think the land costs should ordinarily be too severe

It's cheap. Several of the houses are in the same little block of land in the city that I visited in Hale county and it leads me to believe they may have some sort of partitioning or parceling that makes it more affordable than that even, but yes, cheap land for sure.

but one thing these designers always overlook is wheelchair accessibility

As I recall it at least one of the houses I saw was explicitly designed for a wheelchair using client/family. Honestly, making the perfect the enemy of the good by trying to make every house either the same or suitable for every use case is not a good mix for this strict of a budgetary constraint/use case.


I feel like these kind of design solutions are nothing but a distraction. Pictures of nicely designed miniature houses on nice rural pieces of property seem Martian by contrast to urban slum or decaying inner ring suburbs.


Drive through rural Alabama and then tell me that those [mostly black and VERY poor] folk wouldn't benefit from a, researched and tried, catalog of house designs based upon sweat equity and a goal of making as good a thing for as cheap as possible. Not all people are in places where 'sprawl' is the number one issue.

Christ, a lot of naysaying and party pooping going on here. Sure, hunger in Africa and the war on ISIS is a big deal but this is a really good, long lasting project that is helping people both on the individual and meta level.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:30 AM on February 5, 2016 [50 favorites]


Pretty much all the links have rotted away.

I've noticed this before with regards to the links to rural studio projects, honestly it's sad because I feel like finding information about the various projects should be a high priority but, nature of the beast I suppose....
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:31 AM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


The problem with all of these tiny stand-alone house solutions is that they still end up with neighborhoods so sparse that residents are going to need automobiles. If you really want to make housing cheaper, we need to address the entire lifestyle, and that means finding ways to build multi-family dwellings that have better sound insulations and common spaces (both outside and inside) that work for the residents.

There are a number of tiny house vendors near me, Tumbleweed in Sebastopol, Little House on the Trailer in Petaluma, so it's part of the local zeitgeist. All the conversations I've had around these end up with two markets: People who want an upscale alternative to a trailer for their vacation property up in the Sierra, and guys who think it's cool, until they get a girlfriend and start a relationship.

Get me good data on sound insulation for shared walls, experience from intentional communities, ways to integrate denser living into existing suburbs, then I'll be excited.
posted by straw at 11:34 AM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


The problem with all of these tiny stand-alone house solutions is that they still end up with neighborhoods so sparse that residents are going to need automobiles.

FFS, have you seen the numbers for Hale County? The population is 15,760, that means unless you put the whole lot of them into one spot you're not really going to have a metropolis type situation. Of course they're going to need cars, or else be [forcibly I suppose?] relocated to an urban area.

Uprooting, relocating, and reestablishing them is going to cost a helluva lot more than it costs these people to build where their family has ties for generations and maybe where they have family that needs them.

Every solution does not have to be all the solutions and this sort of "Put'em up in dorms, that's what should happen" is really, really fucked and, I guess it has to be said, a non starter.

Anyway, I've seen the following houses in particular if anyone has questions I'll try to respond, bear in mind it was quite a few years ago.... This one, this one too, and that one, and this one as well, as well as a few more that I don't see sites for because, I suspect, link rot.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:42 AM on February 5, 2016 [19 favorites]


Christ, a lot of naysaying and party pooping going on here.

I think it's important to remember that this is not necessarily a one-design-fits-all kind of thing. Maybe poor rural Alabama could use a design for small stand-alone houses because land is cheap for people living in rural areas (this would also apply to the mass transit issue that straw raises -- getting rid of cars in cities is way easier than getting rid of them in rural areas). If this helps solve a problem in one area, maybe some of those lessons could be applied to solving housing problems elsewhere, but it doesn't have to be a 1-1 comparison.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:44 AM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]


Someone built a tiny house near me recently and it ended costing $191,000 in the end which is much than actual 3 bedroom houses with garages cost in that area.
posted by octothorpe at 11:47 AM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]


"There seems to be this endorsement of "tiny" stand alone homes as an alternative to group housing, apartments, and "conventional" pre-fab homes without an explanation as to why it's a better idea and independent of widespread market demand, like some type of viral marketing."
"Pictures of nicely designed miniature houses on nice rural pieces of property seem Martian by contrast to urban slum or decaying inner ring suburbs. "


As Roland of Eld say, rural poverty is a thing. Not everybody lives in areas where apartments are available, or where group housing makes sense. Perhaps they work in agriculture or adjacent to agriculture (feed plant). Perhaps they work at a rural prison, or a rurally-located factory. There are a lot of small towns that don't have much in the way of housing stock, but have got a lot of land, and enough of a local economy to support a number of near-poverty-level families. Why shouldn't the rural working poor have access to cozy, pretty little cottages, rather than falling-down 120-year-old farmhouses?

I was going to google streetview you the town I was particularly thinking of, with a grain elevator and a Purina plant, big enough to have a junior high -- BUT NOT BIG ENOUGH TO HAVE BEEN GOOGLE STREETVIEW SURVEYED apparently. And half the roads remain unpaved. It's a nicely dense little town, 420 people in .15 square miles on a street grid, surrounded for dozens of miles by corn, corn, corn. They're not exactly living the suburban sprawl lifestyle; you can walk to its little park or its grain elevator or its junior high from anywhere in town in less than 5 minutes. There are not a lot of housing options. Clearly a lot of the housing in the area needs to be replaced with newer housing, but how can you manage that affordably when it's so far from anywhere and people earn such low wages?

The United States is a big country. Not everybody lives the same life you do, with the same problems, and the same housing issues.

"The problem with all of these tiny stand-alone house solutions is that they still end up with neighborhoods so sparse that residents are going to need automobiles. If you really want to make housing cheaper, we need to address the entire lifestyle, and that means finding ways to build multi-family dwellings that have better sound insulations and common spaces (both outside and inside) that work for the residents."

It's called RURAL STUDIO. They address housing problems in RURAL areas, not neighborhoods. (And in urban areas, tiny houses are typically ADU infill on preexisting housing lots, doubling density in already-built areas.) How do your solutions work for RURAL areas?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:53 AM on February 5, 2016 [37 favorites]


If they didn't want these designs to go outside Hale County, then we wouldn't be reading this article about using these designs in an artists community in Serenbe . So "but you don't need $X in Hale County!" is a bullshit response to concerns.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:53 AM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


Maybe poor rural Alabama could use a design for small stand-alone houses because land is cheap for people living in rural areas

No kidding.

It's like how someone above said, pretty much anyway, "Well why not make them bigger despite the fact that it would cost more money?"

Because then they wouldn't be able to afford it and would continue to live in fucking slave houses that are still in use to this day.* This project is not a magic money machine, it's college kids learning design and raising funds and sweating their assess off to help people that want and need help. These people can't just say "oh well I guess I'll just save $25k because then I can give mamma an extra bedroom instead of a couch.

... because even a spare couch is better than the floor in a slave home that is falling down around them and is held together with plywood and bailing wire.

Rarely have I seen comments so out of touch with reality as in this case.

*I found that link in a hurry because I have to go, but honestly, do some google maps streetview walking in the neighborhood of Hwy-69 going thru Hale County AL, if only because I can reference it from experience not because it is in any way an outlier, and mabye you'll find some enlightenment on what the current housing in rural, black-belt Alabama looks like for folks that this project is trying to help.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:55 AM on February 5, 2016 [29 favorites]


I think it's important to remember that this is not necessarily a one-design-fits-all kind of thing. ... If this helps solve a problem in one area, maybe some of those lessons could be applied to solving housing problems elsewhere, but it doesn't have to be a 1-1 comparison.

This is an important takeaway - the proof-of-concept homes are taken from vernacular lessons in rural areas, but the use of materials and architectural conditions can be modified for other settings.
posted by a halcyon day at 11:56 AM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


"As Roland of Eld say, rural poverty is a thing. Not everybody lives in areas where apartments are available, or where group housing makes sense."

I totally understand that - part of what I'm wondering is if there's something that tiny homes would do more effectively than mobile homes in these areas.
posted by Selena777 at 12:05 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


The point of the project is also to bring inexpensive housing with dignity. They explicitly are not trying to build housing which is "ugly but functional" or which "warehouses" people. Like it or not, in America, that dignity goes along with single-family houses, especially in rural areas.

They want these designs to go to the rural places they are being designed for. Hale County is not the only rural area badly in need of affordable housing that exists. The concerns being brought up here, however, seem to be... ignoring the reality of life in rural areas in a way I find uncomfortable.
posted by sciatrix at 12:06 PM on February 5, 2016 [21 favorites]


I would love to build a tiny home on the lot where my dad's house currently is once he dies. However, it won't be affordable. Sure, I'll have the lot. But I'd have to tear down the actual house that's here now. (Current house has severe foundation issues and as much as I would love to fix it - the kind of money it would require just does not exist for me.) Then I'd have to deal with getting the land fixed up. Sewer hookup, etc., Much like that Garfield house my tiny home just went from being affordable to being a freaking nightmare to get done. On top of that I'd have to deal with zoning (which strangely, I don't think would be that much of an issue once I got them over the, "oh crap somebody wants to build a tiny house" factor.) The bigger city issue would be the actual people who live here. My neighbors would be 100% cool with it. The outsiders would choke on the idea though.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:07 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


Why can't we all just live in one giant house?
posted by oceanjesse at 12:10 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


"part of what I'm wondering is if there's something that tiny homes would do more effectively than mobile homes in these areas."

I live in the tornadoey part of Illinois, and one benefit is that you can stick a basement under most tiny fixed cottages; mobile homes are at greater risk during tornadoes. (Modern mobile homes have come a long way and are much safer than older ones! But you've still got to have an on-site tornado shelter at the mobile home site.) This particular Auburn project is on piers which I understand is appropriate to Southern climate and weather; up here, these small, inexpensive home projects (same sort of thing, university kids working on design problems for rural areas) tend to be planned with a "full" basement and a lot of emphasis on high-quality modern insulation for Illinois winters. (A lot of old rural farmhouses are barely insulated at all and they are freeeeeeezing and drafty.) You can have a full basement dug and concreted for a small-footprint house for under $5,000 most of the time, so it doesn't add as much cost as you might think.

Also I feel like socially it'd be kinda weird to have a mobile home in a lot of these little old farm towns. I would tentatively suggest that there's a sense of pride in the rootedness of the residents (who have, after all, stuck out the great migration from the farms to the suburbs and are still there on the farm) that drives a social preference for permanent structures. You do see some quantity of manufactured houses, but always on a permanent foundation. I think mobile homes are less-remarkable in, like, the prison town, which is a little bigger and has a little more migration in and out of town as people come and go to work at the prison. (I have no issue with mobile homes, I think they're a very good solution to suburban problems in particular, I just think there are social preferences against them in farm towns around here.)

And the fact that mobile homes already do something effectively isn't a reason to NOT develop more options; even people without a lot of money, or who live in the back ass of beyond, deserve to have options to choose from and choices they like -- not to be forced into the most efficient, dull housing available. We already tried having everyone live in identical boxes of ticky-tacky in Levittown, it's kind-of a hellscape.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:23 PM on February 5, 2016 [15 favorites]


I'm wondering is if there's something that tiny homes would do more effectively than mobile homes in these areas.

Have you ever lived in a mobile home? In the south (because I have heard that the standards of construction are, by necessity, significantly better in areas where it gets cold enough to kill)?

I'm guessing you haven't or you wouldn't be asking. I'm not trying to be an asshole, your question has merit and I feel like you're coming from a good place in asking it and not presuming to know what's good / bad for these people and populations.

Mobile homes, again in the South at least, are flimsy. They're prone to insect infestations, that I have seen, in much worse ways than constructed homes. The floors feel sqiushy and hollow. The architecture (HA. HA. HA) both inside and out is limited and it shows and is a tangible thing both when you park out front to walk inside your 'home' and when you're sitting in the living room watching TV or in your kitchen making coffee. Insulation is often inadequate so cooling bills, not to mention heating, are high. Cabinet doors fall off or hang loose. You have to go up steps to get into your front door, often via a porch/steps that are falling apart, causing falls and health risks and splinters. The windows don't move up and down easily or at all due to wiggle in the framing and movement from transport. Animals live underneath, either in the dirt or in the insulation under the flooring.

Why? Why are they like that?

Because they're built to preserve already thin profit margins at every turn and on an assembly line type model. Sure, cookie-cutter homes are built the same way and have a few of the same issues, I'm not discounting that. Nor am I saying that specialization of labor is a bad thing for consumers like this.

But I am saying it's a bad thing implementation here. They don't last. They're built of the cheapest materials, as fast as possible, and then, literally, shipped out to be put on a lot and sold like a cheap car. There's even used ones for sale sometimes, but often these are limited to the lot where they sit because they're, honestly, functionally immobile after the initial move to it's first purchaser's destination.

Then they rot. New roof? Nah just build another roof over the roof that's falling apart because the underlying structure is rotten and inadequate.

Did I mention the stigma? There's a stigma. Ever watch Trailer Park Boys? Ever wonder why there's very little interaction with folks that don't live in a trailer park on the show? Sure it's a show and they have reasons, but honestly it's because there's a cultural divide and not alot of crossover, or at least not easily/fluidly, between trailer park residents and folks with homes.

Even that phrase I just typed, it comes so easily and says so much. It implies that people in trailer parks A) don't have homes and B) are 'residents', which sounds temporary despite any monetary ownership of said domicile (on wheels or not).

Comparing these Rural Studio homes, whatever else you may think of the program in general, to mobile homes is like comparing a Big Mac to a hamburger grilled up with care by a friend. Or like comparing a walmart T-shirt to one stitched together by a talented grandmother.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:28 PM on February 5, 2016 [24 favorites]


Alternative idea: Quinta Monroy in Tarapacá, Chile, where they built "half the house" with the space/ability to double the living space for a low cost. Ugly but utilitarian, giving people the option build their spaces to their wishes and requirements.

That's sort of a classier version of something I saw a lot of when I visited Peru. There, a lot of houses would be built one story at a time, with lots of rebar sticking out the top. That way, the owner only needed to save the money for the first floor to build the house, then he could live in it while he saved up the money to build the next one.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 12:29 PM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]


"Because they're built to preserve already thin profit margins at every turn and on an assembly line type model. Sure, cookie-cutter homes are built the same way and have a few of the same issues, I'm not discounting that. Nor am I saying that specialization of labor is a bad thing for consumers like this. "

I have been reading up on the history of a working-class neighborhood in my city, and one of the things that comes up over and over again, for both this neighborhood and similar ones throughout the Midwest, is that Sears and Montgomery Ward kit houses dramatically expanded the ability of working-class families, and YOUNG families in particular, to own houses. When cities stopped allowing self-build houses and kit-houses, homeownership by younger and poorer families dropped considerably -- and minority homeownership, as they had considerably less access to mortgage lending in the amounts required. People had to spend a lot longer renting before they were able to save up enough to own.

If Auburn is able to provide these as $14,000 of materials in a kit format with instructions, that expands homeownership to a LOT of people it wasn't available to with a $45,000 new manufactured or mobile home (I just checked local prices, that appears pretty standard around here); $25,000 used. Not everyone will have the skill to build it, but a lot of these guys build their own barns, or moonlight in the building trades, and could do it. Getting together $14,000 and some friends to barn-raise your house is a lot easier than getting together $45,000.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:47 PM on February 5, 2016 [22 favorites]


They encourage sweat equity too, as well as putting some time-based rules into the purchasing party agreement I think, to ensure that the home isn't just used/abused/not maintained or understood by the new owners.

So, I found the streetview of the place I went to see and work on these houses, sadly google street view doesn't have the whole cul-de-sac mapped but I'll post a few links here pointing you in the right viewing direction here, as well as a google map link, so you can orient yourself from above as well.

Oh, and feel free to spin the camera 180 degrees and look across the very same street mind you at, once again, old/shitty/slave/trailer housing and ask yourself where you'd like to live if you had the choice?

Honestly that area is much revitalized from what it was when I visited. It was basically just a bunch of empty space, the old crappy houses/trailers and the sort of lonely 3 or 4 Rural Studio homes. I wonder if that's become a bit of a warm-spot for building in the city. If so, good for fucking them.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:55 PM on February 5, 2016 [6 favorites]


They're prone to insect infestations, that I have seen, in much worse ways than constructed homes.

Ugh...now I'm having flashbacks to when I (thankfully briefly) lived in a run-down single-wide. I had to sleep on a couch in the living area, because the bedroom had this mysterious influx of brown recluses that we couldn't get rid of no matter how much poison we sprayed in there.

A lot of the problems--insulation, cabinetry quality, etc.--are taken care of in newer mobile homes, but then again, you're not getting a new mobile home in the 20k price range. Also, if I remember correctly, the USDA rural home program puts some restrictions on mobile home purchases that they don't have for stick-built homes, just to provide a further reason something like this project is useful.
posted by mittens at 12:57 PM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


One advantage of small, one story houses is that they're easier to build for unskilled people than larger ones; you don't need a crane and a qualified rigger to put the roof trusses on, for instance.

A lot of the houses where I live (Hull, across the river from Ottawa) are quite narrow and some of them were sold as kits (including windows and hardware) by the local sawmills.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:59 PM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


(cosmic.osmo, IIRC Vitruvius specifies different load-bearing engineering on each floor for exactly that long term plan. )
posted by clew at 1:01 PM on February 5, 2016


One-story houses are also a lot easier to maintain.
posted by clew at 1:03 PM on February 5, 2016


Samuel Mockbee died in 2002. more links in that thread.

The Rural Studio predates the tiny house movement. Architecture students talk to people and try to design housing and projects that meet their needs and are location- and environment-appropriate. I'm envious of those of you who have had the opportunity to visit.

Now they're trying to take some of the ideas and use them in broader settings. I would love to have a house that used some different materials in an efficient way. Check out the Rural Studio and you may find your cynicism dwindling.

Trailers are often only adequately built and they generally don't have much in the way of energy efficiency or innovation. Yes, I have spent time in a manufactured house. This morning, I saw 1/2 of a manufactured house on its side where the delivery truck swerved in the snow. This has no bearing at all on this post, but it did have a certain air of Oz.
posted by theora55 at 1:26 PM on February 5, 2016 [9 favorites]


I loathe the home-construction industry's insistence on building so very many new homes and making them larger, and larger, and larger, and larger. But on the other hand, I did some blinking at this project over the one-bedroom houses. That seems a little out of sync with the market need they're trying to fill, no?
posted by desuetude at 1:46 PM on February 5, 2016


because the bedroom had this mysterious influx of brown recluses that we couldn't get rid of no matter how much poison we sprayed in there.

Yep, I've heard of this very thing. I was told that the exterminator in question told the family that called him in (he was about the 4th or 5th professional to show up) that the trick is to understand that the, in this case, mobile home wasn't infested with brown recluses but instead was infested with cockroaches that just happened to be being preyed upon by a vibrant predator population, in this case the brown recluse.

A lot of the problems--insulation, cabinetry quality, etc.--are taken care of in newer mobile homes

I'll take your word for it but that's news to me. Here's hoping that the lowball bidders can now make a good product as well as still make a profit. I'm cynical so *shrug*.

That seems a little out of sync with the market need they're trying to fill, no?

The exceedingly poor that want to get into a home that they own and can maintain and use as a foundation for a new life and/or stepping stone into something else? Nope, it's pretty damn spot on.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:49 PM on February 5, 2016 [7 favorites]


how can you manage that affordably when it's so far from anywhere and people earn such low wages?

In a town dominated by a single employer or two like the one with the grain elevator and the Purina plant discussed above, is it actually cheaper to put people in detached single-family housing than in apartment buildings (either rental or condo)? I'm asking that in good faith; I honestly don't know. (I do suspect an answer, but I also know it's much too complicated for me to just speculate correctly.)

Is homeownership (as opposed to access to clean, safe housing generally) such a compelling goal for this segment of the population? This is not a question about whether they deserve dignity. I've lived in rental housing all my life; to me, dignity in housing is a matter of conditions, not whether you own the place. And appreciation in value on houses like this, in economically depressed rural areas like this, is unlikely to outstrip the return on other assets (especially when you consider maintenance costs over the years), so they're unlikely to serve as the foothold for economic improvement that some people think (in my opinion, optimistically) housing will continue to be. Given the number of people involved, we're not talking urban skyscrapers of concentrated misery as the result of a different policy, either.

A lot of prosperous countries have significantly lower homeownership rates than the U.S. does. The motives here are totally commendable, and Rural Studio has clearly poured a lot of energy and ingenuity into their ideas. But, in solving a design problem, are they actually solving the community-planning problem?
posted by praemunire at 2:03 PM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


is it actually cheaper to put people in detached single-family housing than in apartment buildings

It kind of depends on who's footing the bill, right? Apartment buildings are going to require an owner who is willing to make that investment and bear all the financial risks involved, but with single-family housing, the risks are spread out into the community. So, maybe not cheaper, but harder to find someone willing to take that responsibility.

I think homeowning as a compelling goal is inextricable from dignity, because in rural areas, it's tough to find rentals that are well-maintained. Many of the apt observations about mobile homes that RolandOfEld offered also apply, to some degree, to rental houses and duplexes after they've been left to decay during a long string of tenants. If you own something, if you've got a stake in it, you are of course stuck with all the maintenance yourself, which can be surprisingly pricey, but at least it's not in the hands of an absent landlord who isn't that concerned with upkeep.
posted by mittens at 2:17 PM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


Apartment buildings are going to require an owner who is willing to make that investment and bear all the financial risks involved, but with single-family housing, the risks are spread out into the community. So, maybe not cheaper, but harder to find someone willing to take that responsibility.

Subsidized credit for construction can go a long way here. Whether the numbers would work seems very community-specific, but we do have tools to address that specific problem.

I think homeowning as a compelling goal is inextricable from dignity, because in rural areas, it's tough to find rentals that are well-maintained.

Valid point (and not only in rural areas, either). I'm just wondering if our resources wouldn't be more effectively invested in developing policy that would provide well-maintained rental housing, rather than encouraging folks to sink their precious scraped-together dollars into an asset that I think (barring some radical transformation of the economy) would be lucky to beat inflation in returns over the length of a mortgage. Most scenarios for homeownership providing a foothold for upwards mobility assume appreciation that just seems really unlikely to happen for these kinds of properties in these communities.
posted by praemunire at 2:31 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


I suspect the idea of living in apartments in a rural area is something most people would find less appealing; in my hometown (primarily sorted by jobs at the federal prison outside of town) the only apartment buildings in the whole town were nursing homes and some really run down places on the edge of town. It might be cheaper, but that's where the dignity part comes in. People live in apartments largely because city density demands it, not because it's pleasant to live in a space where you can hear your neighbors and you don't have your own yard or porch and can't open your windows to get a crossbreeze in the summer.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:37 PM on February 5, 2016 [8 favorites]


Ownership allows:

- pets, with no landlord approval required
- no walls to share with noisy neighbors
- no hallways to share with others
- choice of wall color, flooring, etc.
- ability to have a garden
- ability to renovate, add a room, etc.
- lower cost, long term

I bought a very small house, in a town of 1500 people, for about $10,000 in 2007. I paid $152 per month on a loan for a little less than 5 years. After that loan was paid off (the bank wouldn't call such a small loan a "mortgage"), my expenses were utilities, property tax, and homeowner's insurance. Total was about $250 to $300 per month.

Ownership resulted in lower per-month expenses, plus a non-trivial amount of equity.
posted by yesster at 3:17 PM on February 5, 2016 [18 favorites]


The Rural Studio is a very inspiring and amazing school, and I'd love to go and visit. And I can easily see how the tiny house is a good pedagogical tool. Architects love tiny houses and apartments because they have this industrial design-type complexity while being simple and elegant.
But, from a socio-economic point of view they make no sense. For every region, there is a breaking point where the basic costs of construction make sense (foundation, sewage, electricity, establishing the construction site, legal documents etc). Most places in the western world this point is way above the footprint of a tiny house. As far as I can see, that is exactly what the problem is here. In short: scale. They can scale up by making 1000 tiny houses, but even then, the price difference between a tiny house and a more normal but small house would probably be marginal.

One of my professors at architecture school proposed that the best way to achieve affordable housing would be to build very good quality rental housing, and then let wealthy people live at a high rent until the loans/mortgages were paid off. At that time, new and even better homes should be offered to the wealthy, while the now almost expense-less but still good homes were offered as low-income housing. Obviously, that would need continuous long-term planning.
posted by mumimor at 3:29 PM on February 5, 2016 [5 favorites]


is it actually cheaper to put people in detached single-family housing than in apartment buildings (either rental or condo)?

I can't speak to the economics of it, but land here is cheap and the same goes for raw materials. Of course you have a failing utility system, like most of america, that fails to deliver a good portion of the water it pumps out intended for dwelling usage and you have the need, again like most of america, for automotive type transport, be it communal family type vehicles or solo-ownership rides. So maybe those cancel out, I don't know. But the important question I have for you is "what 'apartment buildings (rental or condo)' are you speaking of?" I think you'd be hard pressed to find many either A) existent or B) feasible and not to mention C) kept up in a reasonable and ethical manner for these, again very poor and often very black, people to move into and live/love.

And appreciation in value on houses like this, in economically depressed rural areas like this, is unlikely to outstrip the return on other assets (especially when you consider maintenance costs over the years), so they're unlikely to serve as the foothold for economic improvement that some people think (in my opinion, optimistically) housing will continue to be.

Sure, they might not appreciate, but these people are used to, and as someone said upthread often have family members in the building trades as well, maintaining their homes on their own and Rural Studio supports that by requiring sweat equity on the front end. But, and this is the more important point actually, these folks are saving the rental money they would have been paying to those hypothetical apartment building managers you mentioned previously., if they could even afford to pay it in the first place. Median incomes for a household in Hale County is $25,807 and is about $12k per capita, so saving money that would have went out as rent is a huge, huge thing.

Not to mention that many of these folks, again as others have said, come from agricultrual backgrounds and are no strangers to hunting or fishing or harvesting. I'm not saying they all do, but it is in no way an uncommon site to see a side or even a front yard garden, even in small places that don't have room for the, again not at all uncommon, full fledged plot of tilled earth. So, growing your own food if times get even harder or you want to save that bit of grocery money is also a non-negligible thing.

But, in solving a design problem, are they actually solving the community-planning problem?

Again, I don't know if they are or aren't but I'm in no way wringing my hands about it. For one thing it isn't their job to solve every problem. Not one bit. And for another they've built a shit ton of structures like homes, churches, bridges, and gazebos for the community in question that are actually in use and probably replaced something alot crappier. Compared to Architecture 4506 Designing With Gothic Intent Inspired by Frank Llyod Somebody, this is the class I think is doing the most good for student and community alike.
posted by RolandOfEld at 3:30 PM on February 5, 2016 [11 favorites]


The ever popular Bitter Southerner weighs in.

Most scenarios for homeownership providing a foothold for upwards mobility assume appreciation that just seems really unlikely to happen for these kinds of properties in these communities.

This is going to be the most cynical thing I've ever written maybe but, and I really hate to say it, I can't help but wonder if a lot of the people in Hale County haven't long since given up the idea of any 'upwards mobility'. I wouldn't blame them if they had. They are literally the children of slaves living in the same places their slave ancestors lived in, sometimes even the same buildings. They've been screwed and any change is going to be exceedingly slow in coming.

In the meantime I don't think they've given up the idea of having, owning, maintaining, and maybe even passing on to their successors, nice things. These houses aren't even frivolous things. They're real, tangible things that make their lives better and maybe even more sustainable. Even in the most cynical of 'throwing up my hands' sort of way I don't see how, if you want to call it this, a bit of redistribution of wealth, via micro-financing/grants/student effort, is a bad thing.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:07 PM on February 5, 2016 [22 favorites]


RolandOfEld, thanks for your enlightening comments.
posted by desjardins at 4:14 PM on February 5, 2016 [12 favorites]


Someone built a tiny house near me recently and it ended costing $191,000 in the end which is much than actual 3 bedroom houses with garages cost in that area.

And she lost most of the value the minute she drive it off the lot!

But seriously, I wonder if it was the bespoke nature of the house. Suburban tract housing doesn't have much going for it, but at least it has some economy of scale.
posted by GuyZero at 4:59 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


I think you'd be hard pressed to find many either A) existent or B) feasible and not to mention C) kept up in a reasonable and ethical manner for these, again very poor and often very black, people to move into and live/love.

But we're talking here about new construction. I have no problem believing that the current rental stock in the kind of area envisaged here is inadequate in every way. Why is the assumption that it would be better to build detached single-families rather than rental housing given similar thoughtful attention?

Sure, they might not appreciate, but these people are used to, and as someone said upthread often have family members in the building trades as well, maintaining their homes on their own and Rural Studio supports that by requiring sweat equity on the front end. But, and this is the more important point actually, these folks are saving the rental money they would have been paying to those hypothetical apartment building managers you mentioned previously., if they could even afford to pay it in the first place.

You can't really discuss the economic value of home-ownership without considering the math. What you appear to "save" in rent vs. mortgage payment (and then no mortgage payment) is only part of the analysis. Home-ownership only makes sense, from an economic point of view, if the costs, that is:

* the down-payment [or full purchase price] itself;
* the opportunity cost of not investing that down-payment elsewhere (often overlooked);
* all closing costs;
* interest on the mortgage if you have one [this is tax-deductible, which helps, but only if you itemize, which I suspect many of the intended population will not];
* property taxes;
* insurance; plus
* all maintenance costs over the period of ownership

are lower at least than the returns on the house:

*rent saved; plus
* equity (which will usually contain an element of appreciation)

and better yet lower than the returns on an appropriately-risky alternative investment.

There are obviously a lot of variables here, but, for most people generally, because of the high up-front costs, the returns on the purchase of a home are negative for the first several years. If you assume that no real appreciation will occur, the calculations get a lot tighter. Saving money on rent is nice and all, but if you reach old age with (just for example) tens of thousands of dollars less than you would have had if you made the same investment in a Vanguard index target-retirement fund, buying the house may not have been the right decision.

I personally live right now in a modest rented apartment. I do have to share a wall with people. And a hall. I can't have a dog and I would need my landlord's permission to paint. I still think it's a "nice thing" (it's a lot better than the apartment I grew up in, which for most my childhood swarmed with cockroaches) and I can't say renting has any negative impact on my dignity. I absolutely believe that everyone needs access to good housing, and I applaud Rural Studio for grappling with the problem. But, if we're designing buildings from scratch, home-ownership itself is not the only way of achieving that and, if the math is unfavorable, may actually have a negative economic effect on the home-owners. Like I said, this is all very site-specific and I don't have the numbers to do the analysis, but no one seems to be thinking about the necessity of checking that math first.
posted by praemunire at 5:32 PM on February 5, 2016


* the down-payment [or full purchase price] itself;
* the opportunity cost of not investing that down-payment elsewhere (often overlooked);


Presumably buyers would take advantage of the USDA direct loans, which require no down payment. It is hard to imagine a situation where the intended buyers would be able to save enough for a down payment, let alone be able to invest that down payment elsewhere.
posted by mittens at 5:39 PM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


Who is going to buy and maintain these fantastical new rental properties in these impoverished communities? If there are landlords just itching to rent out well-kept properties why haven't they done so already? Instead, we have multiple accounts in this thread of current rural rental properties being under-maintained. Someone who can afford to buy such a property probably does not live in the same impoverished community, and absentee landlords are problematic.
posted by desjardins at 5:54 PM on February 5, 2016 [9 favorites]


praemunire: "But, if we're designing buildings from scratch, home-ownership itself is not the only way of achieving that and, if the math is unfavorable, may actually have a negative economic effect on the home-owners. "

I'm not trying to be snarky, but I'm sort-of flummoxed about whether you've actually been to a small rural town ever. There isn't really a market for rental properties; if you lose a tenant, it's hard to get a new tenant. (There is always a market for land and houses, for sale.) Rural landowners rarely want to bother with rentals because there simply aren't the available tenants to make it worth it, and an empty rental for six months, on such thin margins and low rental costs, could put your rental into bankruptcy. What rural temporary housing there is is typically seasonal employee housing provided at low or no cost by the farm owner to his seasonal workers as part of their compensation package. And if we DO have a rural landlord, why wouldn't he choose to buy and build a cute little $20,000 cottage like this one? Why are you imagining he's going to build some kind of four-flat miniature apartment building that he could never, ever rent out? He's going to put a couple of trailers or bunkhouses on his property for the farmhands. Or maybe a couple of cute little $20,000 cottages that he could list on Air B&B in the offseason because WHY NOT.

Also, renters always act like they don't pay property taxes, but not only are the property taxes on your apartment rolled into your rent, but you pay a higher property tax rate than homeowners do in most places, because homeowners get an owner-occupied tax break. Most rental properties in rural areas would be one or at most two units on the lot, so you'd be paying the same property tax as a homeowner, plus 10% or so.

Finally, around here, a lot of people ALREADY OWN THE LAND. They are farmers! Why should they go rent a house or an apartment from someones else, someWHERE else, when they already own land on which they can build a house, if they can do so inexpensively? Or when you can buy an in-town house lot for less than security deposit you'd pay on a rental?

The economics of homeownership and landownership are really, really, really different in rural areas. I am actually kind-of wracking my brain to think of successful rentals in small rural towns in my area, and it's hard to come up with any; there just isn't the transient population to make it possible to maintain occupancy rates high enough to make a rental even a little bit profitable. I guess I can think of a couple where someone inherited a parent or uncle's already-paid-off home, and already own their own in the same town, and rent it out on and off, but most people don't do that for very long before just selling the house. There are just no tenants.

I'm going to ask some rural teachers I know if they rent. But a lot of them commute from larger towns where their spouses work, I know, and a lot of them just buy; you need so little down in these tiny areas. I am looking at little farming towns, though, and finding zero rentals. Plenty of cute, well-kept four-bedroom houses under $100,000. No rentals whatsoever. I don't think people really move out to these towns unless they a) own or purchase land to farm there; b) move there with a company that offers them a relocation bonus to help with housing; c) inherit a house or land or rarely a business; or d) really badly want to live in a small farm town and move there as a lifestyle choice, in a kind-of hipstery way, with a down payment in hand. People who are ALREADY THERE often need better housing -- this is "poverty in place" -- but most people who relocate there are going there for a reason, and typically a reason that has to do with farming, and that reason comes either with land or with lodging.

I truly can't imagine why you'd build a 4-flat in a town of 420.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:28 PM on February 5, 2016 [19 favorites]


* the down-payment [or full purchase price] itself;

See mittens's comment.

* the opportunity cost of not investing that down-payment elsewhere (often overlooked);

You mean under the mattress and on hand in case the car breaks down or granny slips her hip or needs a new roof? Interest rates there have been stagnant for centuries.

* all closing costs;


Again, see mittens's comment.

* interest on the mortgage if you have one [this is tax-deductible, which helps, but only if you itemize, which I suspect many of the intended population will not];

Same thing as mittens's comment I'd be willing to bet. Plus what is 1%, which is the number for interest I saw cited somewhere for this grant type money, on $14k? Sure, chalk that up.

* property taxes;

Chalk this up too, but taxes in this part of the country are low and the elderly can find themselves exempt altogether, I'm not sure about the very, very poor but maybe...

* insurance; plus

I'd be willing to bet that the insurance on such a cheap house is either very low or, maybe, not even required due to the nature of the loan/payment method. And what about renter's insurance/down payments/lost deposits/etc that come with renting (as a very poor person). So let's call this one a push eh?

* all maintenance costs over the period of ownership

Again, this can be DIY or handled through support networks. This is not a stretch at all mostly thanks to strong ties to a community that is used to this type of thing, see slave houses still standing for a citation.

So, yea, I have no trouble in seeing how this can be a smart choice for folks to chalk up against

*rent saved; plus
* equity (which will usually contain an element of appreciation)


Because, again not even considering moving expenses (if rental property A says MOVE ON YOU), juggling deposits, and other ancillary items, of rent saved and the potential for equity to be flat, if not maybe even grow a bit thanks to a really well built and desirable house type.

And yea, on preview I'm with Eyebrows on this one, I'm not trying to snark at you either but it really seems like you haven't really touched on, or hell even driven through, communities like this enough to be theory-crafting reasons why they're doing the whole 'living while poor and constantly-abused minority in the Deep, rural South' thing wrong.

It's tiring enough for me to type a few comments here, I can't imagine what this interaction would look like if you were actually talking to the people in the area who, it seems from what I've read here recently, are really happy and are actually finally coming around, because things like trust in anything close to 'The Man' are very hard earned in places like this, to trusting these organizations more and more.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:42 PM on February 5, 2016 [3 favorites]


I found a rural six-flat! Next to a nursing home, which I guess is probably why it's there, for the employees. It looks like an old motel. It's $1100 deposit and $550/month for one bedroom, one bath, very small; it backs up to a quarry and a concrete factory (which I happen to know are big pollution problems, they've been in the local news lately).

A couple of blocks away I found a $90,000 3-bedroom, 2-bath on the market, with $1500 in property taxes yearly. If you can put $10,000 down, you're paying $485/month on a 30-year mortgage, including property taxes. If you borrowed the whole $90,000, you'd only be paying $529/month -- for three times the space in a nicer building in a nicer setting (i.e., other houses rather than the quarry). The economics of rural renting are just terrible.

Aaaaaaand now I've located an adorable 1927 5-bedroom slate-roofed farmhouse with original woodwork, meticulously maintained, with a modern kitchen, for $150,000 and BRB I MIGHT HAVE TO MOVE. The bathrooms need updating but OMG THE BUILT INS. Comes with its own barn! Septic, but there's an adorable wrought-iron fence!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:49 PM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


Oh, and I somehow missed this on first read through:

but no one seems to be thinking about the necessity of checking that math first.

Look, I graduated from the University of Alabama. I have as much, nay more, disdain for Auburn University as you do. It's genetic and required.

But to imply that the [skilled, amazing, talented] people, not even to mention their clients over the last 20 odd years, there haven't "checked that math" is just insulting. You may not be trying to but you've pretty much crossed over from well-meaning-but-ignorant skeptic into straight up trolling with thoughts like this.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:50 PM on February 5, 2016 [10 favorites]


GuyZero: "Someone built a tiny house near me recently and it ended costing $191,000 in the end which is much than actual 3 bedroom houses with garages cost in that area.

And she lost most of the value the minute she drive it off the lot!

But seriously, I wonder if it was the bespoke nature of the house. Suburban tract housing doesn't have much going for it, but at least it has some economy of scale.
"

The article says that it was mostly the work on the lot and the foundation that cost so much. There are almost no lots in the city that haven't had at least one building on it in the past so you have to do a lot of work to clear out the old material from the site and possibly re-mediate any toxins (lead, asbestos, gasoline, oil, etc). It's cold here so you have to have to build down below the frost line and run the water and sewer lines at least three feet underground to keep them from freezing. All that stuff ends up costing more than the building itself.

So maybe tiny houses could work in warm rural places like Alabama but possibly not in cold rust belt cities.
posted by octothorpe at 6:58 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm really taken aback to see so many people talking about how this excellent effort is not excellent, and then articulating 101 completely uninformed, urban-centric, and inapplicable reasons why that's so. Like, seriously, stop arguing for the housing scenario outlined in this month's issue of Occupy Idealist Magazine (only on the iPad!) and listen to the regionally-knowledgeable people telling you why these are a workable solution for the environment they're designed and built for and the communities they're intended to serve.

I did some blinking at this project over the one-bedroom houses. That seems a little out of sync with the market need they're trying to fill, no?

This house was designed specifically for people living on Social Security. That is the market.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:14 PM on February 5, 2016 [15 favorites]


Basically if you haven't sat on a front porch with a plate of rabbit and collard greens and polk salat, all local and harvested/hunted that day by the two of you, in your lap while an elderly gentleman tells you about that time he almost got lynched....

Yea, what DarlingBri said.

Sad place. Great people. Bleak prospects. Neat houses.
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:38 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


Perspective on mobile home prices.
posted by notreally at 8:05 PM on February 5, 2016 [1 favorite]


I am RIDE OR DIE for Sam Mockbee. Was just talking about him today.
posted by listen, lady at 8:37 PM on February 5, 2016 [2 favorites]


I totally understand that - part of what I'm wondering is if there's something that tiny homes would do more effectively than mobile homes in these areas.

The article covers this, but the critical thing that site-built houses do that mobile homes do not is hold their value. Mobile homes depreciate just like a car, while site-built houses follow the local housing market. Ideally that means appreciating, but at least it is not a straightforward drop in value.

Someone built a tiny house near me recently and it ended costing $191,000 in the end which is much than actual 3 bedroom houses with garages cost in that area.

From that link:
Half of the construction cost went toward remediation of the land, which included removing an old foundation, digging a basement and excavation for a sewer line, said Ben Schulman, communications director of Small Change, a real estate equity crowd funding platform.
Something went seriously wrong for them to spend $90k to do a tiny bit of excavation on a 1000 square foot lot. That work should cost about a tenth to a fifth of that amount, unless there were contamination issues, in which case the project should have been cancelled and a new site found. (And even then, that is such a tiny piece of land that you could excavate the entire plot six feet deep and it would be less than 225 cubic yards of dirt -- their costs are wildly out of whack.)

Alternative idea: Quinta Monroy in Tarapacá, Chile, where they built "half the house" with the space/ability to double the living space for a low cost. Ugly but utilitarian, giving people the option build their spaces to their wishes and requirements.

John Turner's Housing By People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments is a classic overview of the history of projects like this. It was published in 1978 so it is obviously missing newer experiments, but it is still very much worth reading for anyone interested in these issues. Back to the modern US, there are a lot of barriers to this approach here, including that you can't get a mortgage and a certificate of occupancy for a half-built house.

For every region, there is a breaking point where the basic costs of construction make sense (foundation, sewage, electricity, establishing the construction site, legal documents etc). Most places in the western world this point is way above the footprint of a tiny house.

I was actually thinking about this today while driving through a rural area. My guess is that the inflection point where house size currently pencils out in terms of costs is about 1100 square feet, assuming all the regular issues of building codes, septic systems, normal mortgages, and so on. You just don't see almost any new construction smaller than that or cheaper, which is very obviously the issue that this project is trying to address. There's clearly a need for cheaper site-built housing options in rural America that are not being met, so if one of these experiments catches on with builders and lenders, it will improve a lot of people's lives.

I like the photos in the articles a lot and I would love to see the plans (and even more to visit the houses). Everyone deserves good quality and affordable housing that meets their needs, and this project looks like a very well thought through attempt to use the best of local vernacular architecture while solving constructability issues that architects have a history of flubbing.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:06 PM on February 5, 2016 [4 favorites]


In a properly operating real estate and rental market it is on the average cheaper to own property long term. Simply becasue all landlords have all the costs that owners have plus they expect to make a profit. Sure there will be deals in any market. And if you are going to be moving around a lot then it isn't worth the transaction costs to buy.

The asset bubble has screwed the market up in a lot of areas but places where property isn't a rapidly appreciating asset rents still pretty much track property costs + profit and renting is a horrible deal for the average person who doesn't plan on moving.

Also poorer people who own can make improvements that rarely happen in rentals (i know, not all landlords). Things like planting fruit trees; building up a garden; planting shade trees; choosing slightly more expensive but much lower maintenance finishes like metal roofing over asphalt.

One place where you can really save money with sweat equity when building a small place like this is on excavation charges if the land is excavatable by hand because it costs so much just to get the equipment to your property. I've dug both a foundation and a basement on two separate buildings about 500 sq ft by hand and saved thousands of dollars by doing so. You need to be registered to install a septic field in my jurisdiction now but if you don't have that limitation there is several more thousand you can save by DIY by hand.
posted by Mitheral at 1:14 AM on February 6, 2016 [6 favorites]


I am a million miles away from the experiences of the impoverished south, but it seems extraordinary to me that there is anybody arguing that a sensible financial choice is to rent a home and consider Vanguard investments.
Everywhere I have ever been, rural rental markets have been sketchy and illiquid. There is such a small population of people moving through (a few teachers, public servants, medical workers etc) that there is no functioning market. I know one quite nice house in a rural town that is a rental owned by the daughter of the ambulance officer who took up a posting there 40 years ago. He stayed a few years, bought a house and rented it out to his replacement, then his replacement after that etc.
The idea that you would plan to rent for the rest of your life in these places is crazy. You would be at the mercy of literally one or two landlords, with no rent protections and little leverage to get issues fixed.
The rent would be comparable to the payment on a mortgage to own. And the rent payment tracks inflation, the mortgage payment is locked in place.
Maintenance is cheap, taxes are low.
When you are too old to work you retain a home that is likely paid off. If you are renting you need to factor in future rent rises after your income has ceased and you are reliant on retirement benefits.
My older family and friends in similar scenarios happily maintain their homes, grow a vegetable garden and keep some laying chickens - all strategies that save them cash outlays in exchange for the time they have available. It is no great burden to do a bit of work around the home when you are a 70yro if you can go at your own pace and take a break whenever you want. They may be too old to hold their own against a young person in a workplace, but there is a long step between slowing down and stopped. And, of course, a landlord doing the same maintenance must pay market rates for the work, adding to costs that are passed on to renters.

But the thing that strikes me as most strange is the idea that housing is an investment like stocks or bonds. I can consider my savings and choose whether they would get a better risk/return in bonds or stocks etc. But I don't look at my rent/mortgage money and think I might grab a couple of points if I ran it through a currency futures trade before I paid this months outgoing. Because that would be nuts. I need to pay my rent/mortgage or I will have no roof over my head, a much larger problem than under-performing savings investments. So, at least to me, it seems getting some housing security is a much higher priority than absolute return on dollars invested.
posted by bystander at 5:32 AM on February 6, 2016 [12 favorites]


Rural economies have not melted into air.
posted by clew at 12:34 PM on February 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


Some people doesn't have 14k-20k to build anything. FHA is a great answer. All you pay is closing costs. Low monthly payments based on your income.
posted by tammysons at 9:43 PM on February 6, 2016




That place is interesting. But yea, exception that proves the rule and all that.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:13 PM on February 8, 2016


There are lots of those sort of accommodations around; usually as company provided accommodations. Behold The Wall in Fermont. They tend to be OK to horrible depending on the company and how hard it is to get workers.
posted by Mitheral at 6:35 PM on February 8, 2016


I work at a college in the PNW, and a couple of summers ago I took an "Architectural Design Studio" class taught by an Auburn grad who'd been a Rural Studio student in 2001-02. It sounded like it had been a really important experience for him. (Altho he had been in construction before going back to school, so it wasn't like he'd gone into architecture all starry-eyed.) All of our projects over the summer were about thinking about coming up with designs that worked with their environments, which as someone who's lived in this place for over a decade, I really appreciated.

He gamely put up with a lot of pushback from me about whether a given assignment was even feasible in this city, and appreciated that I already knew quite a bit about local codes and politics! Probably helped that we're the same age. And at the same time, I finally got comfortable with drawing and learned a ton about thinking through design concepts.
posted by epersonae at 2:43 PM on February 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


Fascinating, epersonae! What were the PNW-specific fundamentals? (I'll guess drip skirts, proud window trim, and flashing, and summer-only shade.)

In the post and Alaskan examples there's a practical reason for inexpensive houses in hot regions to be single-story on piers and in cold regions to turn into arcologies.
posted by clew at 5:58 PM on February 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


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